To Stim or Not to Stim, Question for Parents of Autistic Children

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Stimming; that all too familiar highly repetitive behavior that children diagnosed with autism cannot seem to do without. Should we stop it? Should we keep their hands still and stop the incessant pacing, running, flapping, blinking, or other form of stimming? It is a question that parents ask themselves all the time. Specialists offer advice on how to put an end to it, make the children appear more "normal" in public, have them conform to society's expectations. Is it really right, though?

What is a Stim?
According to the Journal of Applied Behavior Analysis, self-stimulatory behavior, also known as "stims", is the repetitive, stereotyped, and functionally autonomous behavior seen both amongst normal and developmentally disabled populations. However, no satisfactory theory of the behavior's development and major characteristics exists as of yet.

Examples of stims partly mentioned in a previous article include:
Visual-

  • Staring at lights or ceiling fans
  • Repetitive blinking
  • Moving fingers in front of the eyes
  • Hand-flapping
  • Gazing at nothing in particular
  • Tracking eyes
  • Peering out of the corners of eyes
  • Lining up objects
  • Turning light switches on and off

Auditory-

  • Vocalizing in the form of humming, grunting, or high-pitched shrieking
  • Tapping ears or objects
  • Covering and uncovering ears
  • Snapping fingers
  • Making vocal sounds
  • Repeating vocal sequences
  • Repeating portions of videos, books or songs at inappropriate times

Tactile-

  • Scratching or rubbing the skin with one’s hands or with another object
  • Opening and closing fists
  • Taking things apart and putting it back together over and over again
  • Opening and closing doors
  • Tapping surfaces with fingers

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Vestibular-

  • Rocking front to back
  • Rocking side-to-side
  • Spinning
  • Jumping
  • Pacing
  • Running back and forth
  • Shaking legs

Taste-

  • Placing body parts or objects in one’s mouth
  • Licking objects
  • Biting into anything soft
  • Rolling favourite foods around in the mouth

Smell-

  • Sniffing or smelling people
  • Keeping nose close to objects which smell a certain way
  • Hoarding items, such as softening cloths, that have a light and fresh scent

My personal stims include the hoarding of softening cloths, which I love to keep in every drawer and smell on a regular basis, and pacing, particularly when I'm on the phone or trying to figure out the best way to solve a problem. Tapping my pens and pencils, shaking my leg up and down when nervous or stressed, playing with my lips when thinking and a few other behavior quirks are quite common and shared among the general population. I have never been diagnosed, either. Everyone deals with the world's stimuli and the effects it has on one's emotions differently. I cannot for the life of me fathom why anyone would want to stop a stim.

There are many articles out there for parents on how to treat stim behavior. So many caregivers and teachers are told they must suppress it as it is not good for the child, sometimes even harmful. I can see how flapping while in class can be quite distracting, but why not teach a child a better way to stim. After all, stimming can actually be a good thing!

Study Proves Stimming can be Good
According to a study published in the Journal of Biological Psychology, elevated repetitive behaviors are associated with lower diurnal salivary cortisol levels in Autism Spectrum Disorder. Research has found that there is evidence of lower cortisol levels in response to stress and associated sensory sensitivity in the ASD population, something that stimming can balance out. 21 children with repetitive behavior were studied, ranging from high levels of stim to low. The conclusion? Those stimmed more showed 36% lower diurnal salivary cortisol levels than those who had fewer repetitive behaviors.

The morale of the story? Stimming reduces an individual's distress, particularly if they are diagnosed with autism, meaning it may be preferable to allow your child to stim, in answer to one's deeply pondering question.

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Comments

I am very glad I found this! I have Asperger's and I recently learned about stimming (since I was finally convinced I have Asperger's, things have started to make more and more sense as I look back on my life.) I've read a lot about people who stim wanting to learn how not to stim - not simply change how they stim, as you suggested. Some forms of stimming are more socially accepted than others, so if someone who stims in a socially unacceptable manner wanted to change or stop, I could understand the distress behind that. To be honest, I've always had trouble picking at nuisances in and on my body - scabs, cuts, bumps, and... despite how ashamed I am of this... my nose. Since I was very little, I've had this overwhelming compulsion to manually clear my nose, but I try to be as sanitary as possible (I'm also a germophobe, so it's kind of ironic, but I wash my hands repeatedly throughout the day.) I try to use tissue when available, or just scratch at the very tip of my nostrils to at least keep the itching and discomfort at bay. Because of this, I have all kinds of skin irritations and recurring scabs all over my body, which is... unappealing, to say the least. I've scratched parts of my body, like the side of my legs, so much that the skin is bear - no hair at all! I even have a pretty gigantic scar from when I literally scraped the skin right off my leg while incessantly scratching through my pants. I see a single bug, and the rest of the day, or for multiple days, I'm scratching all over frantically like I can feel bugs crawling everywhere. Sometimes I just repeatedly yank very hard on my hair until it almost feels like I'm going to pull it out, or I pinch or bite a cut, scrape, or irritation so that the pain is sharp instead of dull and/or itchy. I find I'm doing these things all day long, everyday, and I just can't seem to stop! It gets really irritating, and it makes me feel really bad about my skin. I try to hide and swiftly 'manually clear my nose,' because it seems so gross and immature, especially for a 20-year-old, but I can never seem to stop. I've gotten better, but can't stop. Sometimes, my whole body will be streaked with red and white from having tried scratching every square inch of my body. While all of this is extremely irritating, after I've done it, I feel so much relief. To be honest, it's akin to a runner's high, sometimes. Perhaps all of my scratching, scraping, picking, and clawing increases my endorphin levels - who knows? So... I'm really torn between whether I should outright stop, lessen, or continue wholly my stimming. I also tend to repeatedly clean beneath my fingernails, bite and tear at the dead skin on my lips, and other habits that could be categorised from completely benign quirks to self-mutilation. In the end, I suppose I'm just always seeking to for once feel comfortable in my own skin, something I'm not sure I have ever once accomplished in my life.